Stopping the Option

Playing an option team soon? Need to stop them?

It can be a challenge. Let me debunk one myth first. Please don’t imagine that you just have to be ‘assignment-sound.’ That’s a silly over-simplification. But most media commentators are clueless about how to really defend the option, so they trot out that old saw, and pretend that they have some insight about how to stop the play.

I’m not much of a defensive guy, but hey Mr. Defensive Coordinator, aren’t you ALWAYS trying to get your guys to do their jobs, and be ‘assignment-sound’? When DON’T you play assignment football? Because I want to run whatever offense it is where you just tell your defensive guys to do whatever the heck they want.

And I will debunk another myth while I’m at it – if your defense is bigger, faster, and stronger than the option team you’re about to play, you can stop reading now, because you will probably beat them anyway. We played a couple of teams this year that were across the board bigger and faster than our team, and it’s really hard to get any sort of offense going. In one game our opponent had a linebacker that was the same size as our biggest lineman, and the speed of a couple of our skill guys. That makes for a pretty good defense.

But if you are concerned that athletically you’re not greatly better, I’d advise four strategies that give youth option teams some trouble.

  • First, take away your opponent’s favorite dive path.

This isn’t always easy if the team you’re playing runs multiple dives  – Midline hits the A gap; ISV hits B; and OSV hits the C. But even if you’re playing a team that runs all three types of dives, try to take away their BEST dive. If it were me and I had a great nose that could dominate the center and make Midline tough, I’d do that first, then shade my defensive tackles inside to try to take away ISV. I’d tell them to get after the fullback no matter what.

At that point I may be susceptible to OSV or Zone Dive, but I’d rather have their fullback running at an oblique angle than hitting straight ahead anyway.

  • Second, play with one or fewer safeties AND put your two best football players as #3 players, one on each side of the field.

I don’t care what typical defense you run, really. If you have two great football players in what we call the #3 spot (see our description of Counting Defenders to determine what the #3 spot is for your defense) then running the option becomes far more difficult.

This is somewhat counterintuitive. You might expect that the pitch key (often #2 or sometimes #1) or the dive key (often #4) would be the place for your best player. But a good option team is good at reading the option. They aren’t necessarily a better blocking team. Why have your best player committing to the wrong man, or grasping at air? Shouldn’t they be fighting and beating a blocker at the point of attack?

The #3 man can involve himself with ANY of the three ball carriers, except possibly a midline diving fullback, and can make plays in the B gap, C gap, and outside.

Yes, an option team can create blocking schemes that cause #3 to be the pitch read, or I suppose, even the dive read on an outside veer (we don’t teach that.) But far more often the pitch key is #2 or #1, and we have to block #3.

When our ISV option isn’t working, the first thing I ask is whether or not #3 is making plays. See my post Block the Fulcrum to run the triple. A good player at that position can cause so much trouble that many of our schemes call for a double-team that player, both inside and out.

  • Third, play with very soft defenders at the #2 position, and very aggressive defenders in the #3 spot.

Quarterbacks hate soft pitch keys. And A backs and ends have a hard time blocking fast, aggressive #3 defenders. So many youth football teams do just the opposite of this, and put their aggressive guys in the #2 spot to kill the quarterback, and have their ‘reading’ linebackers or safeties in the #3 spot try to find the ball. Those aggressive ends are suckers for the QB pitch. And ‘reading’ linebackers are also known as ‘sitting ducks.’

When you invert those two personalities, you’ve made the blocking scheme much more difficult on the perimeter, and you force the quarterback to keep the ball more often than not. A QB that keeps is a QB that’s going to get hit, and youth teams seldom have two great option quarterbacks.

  • Fourth, and most importantly – play three of or four defensive strategies within your base defense.

This is probably my favorite way to defend an option attack. If you have only one defensive scheme, especially out on the perimeter, eventually even a novice option coach will come up with a scheme or adjustment to counter that defense, and they will march down the field. Or worse, they will fly down the field on one huge play.

But if you can keep them guessing, they won’t be able to settle on a blocking scheme that works consistently.

You know that out on the perimeter the quarterback and trail back will be running a pitch read against one of your outside defenders. If in your normal defense you’ve assigned your defensive end to the pitch back and your safety to the quarterback, change it up every three plays or so by exchanging the responsibilities of the end and safety.

Or now and then roll your high safety over cover to the wide-side split end, while blitzing the corners to the C gaps. The remaining linebackers must be alert for pass receiving A backs on the short side, but most youth players have difficulty blocking a blitzing cornerback.

A third adjustment might be to slide your MLB to the B gap in the motion direction, and have your tackles get outside to the quarterback.

What would an offensive coordinator do if confronted with these three changing scenarios? Well, what he should do is keep running the option. But I can tell you from sad experience that option coaches will inevitably become impatient and try to ‘force’ a big play by going away from the option. And if your goal as a defensive coordinator is to get them out of the option, mission accomplished.

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